First-Time Cruisers: 10 Tips for Smooth Sailing

by  Donna Tunney | Updated on Mar 9, 2020
Cruise ship in Turks and Caicos
Cruise ship in Turks and Caicos / mikolajn/iStock

Perhaps a friend recommended a vacation at sea. Maybe a TV commercial, with shots of turquoise waters and smiling passengers, lured you in. Or is it simply time for something different? Cruises are a great way to see multiple destinations in one trip. No matter the reason, the decision is made – you're going on your first trip cruise. If you're feeling unsure of what to expect, don't fret. Just keep these 10 things in mind and you'll enjoy smooth sailing:

1. Make the trip a short one. Since you've never cruised before, there's no way to be sure you'll like it. Find a trip of no more than three or four nights, tops. There are plenty of lines that offer short sailings from U.S. ports, mostly in Florida. Per-night prices on these quick getaways (usually well under $100 per person) are a good small-risk value for the uninitiated.

2. Plan to arrive several hours before the ship's departure time. The ship won't wait for you if you're stuck in highway traffic or if a flight is delayed. Calculate your total travel time, including the trip from the airport to the cruise port, then add three hours to account for unknowns. So if your "all-aboard" time is 3 p.m., plan to arrive at the port no later than noon and you'll be far less anxious on the way there. Most ships leave port in the late afternoon, and all-aboard is typically two hours before that.

3. Pack light. Since your cruise is just a few nights, bring only a carry-on suitcase. You'll save time at the departure port, avoid the risk of lost luggage, and forgo waiting for the crew to deliver your bag to your cabin. On a short vacation, this helps make the most of every minute onboard the ship (or in port if you have extra layover time).

4. Book at least one dinner at a specialty dining venue. Every cruise ship has these venues, and most will charge an extra per-person fee. The fees vary, but they generally start at $20 or $25. Either way, it's not too much more than a night out in your hometown, and it's totally worth it. The cuisine will be different from what the main dining room serves, it's a nice change of scene, and it adds to the overall vacation experience by providing an exciting, special dinner.

5. Prepare for the waves. Pack an anti-motion sickness medication or Seabands – which are wristbands with a pressure-point nob that helps control nausea. Even if you think you've got your sea legs, you can still be affected by sudden ocean swells or winds that cause a ship to rock. Also good to know: Seasickness can be exacerbated by a sunburn and even by minor dehydration.

6. Obtain a map of the ship from the customer relations desk as soon as you embark. Cruise ships are big, often carrying 3,000 or more passengers. They have several decks, public areas, dining and lounge venues, and outdoor recreation spaces. With just a few days to spend onboard, you won't want to waste time walking the wrong way or getting frustrated by the size of the ship.

7. Expect two ports of call on a three-night cruise. To get the lay of the land before you venture out, attend the port lectures provided by a crew member in advance. He or she will talk about the nuances of each port, how disembarkation will be handled, where guided tours meet, and what to do if you haven't booked an excursion.

8. Read the ship's daily newsletter. Delivered to your cabin, these pamphlets contain useful information such as the operating times of restaurants, the full slate of evening entertainment options, and a list of daytime activities. They also provide information on the retail sales happening throughout the shopping venues on the vessel. And if there's a formal night (in most cases a three-night cruise won't have one), the newsletter states the requested dress code.

9. Don't feel obligated to tip additionally on drinks. Unless you've booked an inclusive cruise line – one that includes alcoholic and other beverages in the cruise fare - you'll sign for each drink you order. Bartenders will automatically add a gratuity of up to 18 percent on each purchase, so passengers don't need to add a further tip unless they wish to.

10. Heed the call for the emergency safety drill. This will be done before the ship leaves its departure port. Attendance by every passenger is required – no excuses. If you skip this drill, which usually lasts just 20 minutes, you can, and likely will, be ordered off the vessel.

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